HIST 698 Week 1/Week 2: “Building New Babylon”


I get it. Historians see themselves as one people who have been divided into countless tribes that can’t speak with each other. If that’s the biggest challenge facing the discipline today, I’m not worried. Especially since the existing leadership appears to be writing and assigning books like Historians in Public and History’s Babel, which not only explain the history of this issue but provide hope for the future.

Ian Tyrrell’s Historians in Public is the kind of book some older historians need to be slapped with right now, though even Tyrrell pulls a few punches. Historians in Public does a fine job in redeeming the alliance between academics and government prior to the New Left. Tyrrell is correct when he judges that post-modernism and other modern challenges are not really much different from past crises in historical academia. He is right to partially redeem the “State-based progressives” and their supposed servitude to “power” by placing them in the context of their time, and that modern historians should not fear to work with the public at both a grassroots and institutional level. This is why I am pursuing a Master’s degree. It’s why I went to work for the NPS and the public school system. Imagine what historians could accomplish with their collective intelligence if they could only (temporarily) shed their self-doubting nihilism and their hatred of their peers for their success in the public arena! If these are the kind of books being taught in Grad school right now, I think we’re well on our way.

What Tyrrell does not do is sufficiently criticize the elements of the American public that induce hesitancy and cynicism among academics. While he does admit the public itself is fragmented, perhaps more than academia itself, he does not strike hard enough at the current nature of that fragmentation. Perhaps that’s because the book itself is historiography and not a political treatise. Maybe it’s because he is an Australian and does not really care about the issue beyond proving his point. Whatever. I would like to pick up where he left off and say that not only is it ethical for historians to adapt to and engage the American public at all institutional levels, it is their moral duty to do so.

Why such an arrogant claim? It’s because too much of the American public is stupid. Specifically, I am talking about the part of the American public that listens to AM radio every time they hop in the car to inject themselves with drug-like rage and hatred for everything from minority rights to redistributive government policies. I am talking about the people who can still be riled up by the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit not because the exhibit passed any explicit moral judgment but because it tried to remind Americans that enemy casualties of war are and were human beings. Yes, I am talking about the Americans who look to the culture of “The Deep South” for self-identity.

What I mean to say is that the public desperately needs historians to involve themselves in their lives. As Robert Townsend points out in History’s Babel, the historians who hid themselves in the “ivory tower” of academic professionalism have found and continue to find a great deal of insight into history. This collective knowledge is not a simple list of facts, but a shareable wisdom cultivated by decades of critical thought, peer review, and theoretical development, all for the most part separated from the quarrelsome public sphere. In the meantime, I think, the American public has scarcely improved its capacity for rational thought in the past fifty years.

Some 77% of Americans believe in angels. A majority of Republican voters believe in demonic possession, while a minority accept global warming. Textbooks in (mostly private) schools across the country have asserted everything from the existence of the Loch Ness monster to the frightening lie that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks” during the American Civil War. Is it ever really surprising when historical funding is cut in a nation that elects leaders who think the earth is only 9,000 years old?

Historians, especially academic historians, need to vigorously re-engage the American public and not only teach history, but teach it in a way that promotes rational, skeptical thought. If history as a discipline ever did die without the public learning how to think like historians, then a joke once told by John Adams might become a sad prophecy:

“I’ll not be in the history books. Only Franklin. Franklin did this, and Franklin did that, and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground, and out sprang General Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Then Franklin electrified him with that miraculous lightning-rod of his, and the three of them–Franklin, Washington, and the horse–conducted the entire War for Independence all by themselves.”

5 thoughts on “HIST 698 Week 1/Week 2: “Building New Babylon”

  1. I like how your post takes the audience for public history into account. Different people may need to be reached in different ways and some may be more difficult than others. Different groups of people have different collective “historical assumptions” and as you pointed out, sometimes it can vary by region. The Civil War in paricular seems to be something that has multiple collective “historical assumptions” about it.

  2. Wow, that is certainly a pessimistic way of viewing the world. Whether you are right or wrong about the relative intelligent level of the average American or our political leaders, is it really the best approach to think them stupid? While I completely agree with your argument for more rational, logical thought in our schools, how are we going to get there if we have turned college into high school and grad school into college? It is incumbent upon us to lead the way as historians and educators, but I don’t think the condescension will help our cause.

  3. Osrabit: Thank you for your comment. I agree that the Civil War is an especially clear symptom of the divide in historical assumptions. Just a week or two ago I read a Washington Post book review wherein the book reviewer did not discuss the book so much as making several assertions that the Civil War “could have been avoided,” was somehow Lincoln’s fault, and the ever-popular “slavery would have died out eventually”—all proclamations that forget the fact that the Confederate states seceded simply because Lincoln won by democratic election, and that they were even the first to resort to armed violence.

    Bmwolny: Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure “pessimistic” is the right word. Flippant, yes, elitist, maybe, but in any case I was trying to be provocative. You’re absolutely right that “condescension” will not help “our cause” (I assume you’re saying we have the same goal?). But I wouldn’t call the recognition that there are intellectual divides between some segments of the American population an “approach.” I meant that historians ought to recognize this challenge, and was pointing out that neither of the two books I mentioned recognized it. It’s all well and good to want to reconnect with the public, but so long as the public is ignoring climate scientists and evolutionary biologists, historians might do well to take a lesson from that and adapt accordingly.

    Can the public ever appreciate the complexity of our nation’s founding, so long as think that the Christian bible was written by a god?

    Can the public ever appreciate the suffering of American soldiers and citizenry in the Second World War, when they think that the result of tonight’s Superbowl was preordained by the divine?

    Who could appreciate the complexities of history, all of the near-misses and uncertainties, so long as they think history was planned ahead?

    I am not pessimistic at all, I actually think this issue is extremely important to human progress. In my offensive generalization that some of the public is “stupid,” I’m trying to be practical (and, again, be provocative). I’m calling for honest conversation, for historians not to skirt around the dirty issues when engaging the public. Does that make sense?

    Also, I am a little confused about the “how are we going to get there if we have turned college into high school …” question. Could you clarify for me?

  4. Pingback: Diagnosis: Not A Public Historian | Constructed

  5. Pingback: Diagnosis: Not A Public Historian | #hist5702x

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